A Tightrope Act: Jordan's Turmoil after Gaza

Article excerpt

In December 2008, as televisions worldwide lit up with footage from the Israeli assault on Gaza, protestors next door in Amman, Jordan shouted their support for Hamas, their opposition to Fatah, and their frustration with conciliatory Arab regimes. The sentiments were not new, but the fact that demonstrations were permitted at all in a country as controlling of public opinion as Jordan indicates the state's shifting attitude toward the Israeli -Palestinian conflict. Jordan's monarchy has long walked a fine line between pro-Arab rhetoric and the pro-negotiation policy demanded by its US sponsorship. Increasing tensions within Arab politics, however, threaten to destabilize Jordan's delicate balancing act.

Jordan's Hashemite monarchy has taken care not to ruffle feathers in its foreign policy dealings since the state first gained independence in 1946. As a reward for its consistently pro-Western behavior, the United States has granted Jordan over US$500 million in annual aid. At the same time, Jordan has maintained good relations with its Arab neighbors through support for the Palestinian cause and a commitment to the Arab-Israeli peace process. To complicate matters, West Bank refugees of the conflict have flocked to Jordan over the last several decades and may now constitute a demographic majority in the country. The refugees' subsequent entrepreneurial and economic success has not endeared them to longstanding residents who accuse the newcomers of usurping jobs and resources.

In recent years, Jordan's King Abdullah II has found it increasingly difficult to uphold even a vaguely defined "Arab consensus." During Israel's war with Hezbollah in 2006, for example, about half the Arab regimes openly supported Hezbollah, while Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf states took a more moderate stance consistent with their ties to the United States and Israel. Abdullah faced much criticism for this decision at home, as public sentiment in Jordan and in the greater Arab world is overwhelmingly pro-Hezbollah. Since the beginning of the Gaza conflict, pressure to reject Israel has mounted. Twenty-four Jordanian MPs called for the kingdom to expel the Israeli ambassador and cut off all relations with this neighbor state. Though Abdullah did not attend the summit of "rejectionist" Arab states in Doha, Qatar in January, he mindfully refrained from explicitly criticizing Hamas in the manner of fellow absentees Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Much of the debate over policy toward Israel has unfolded in the realm of domestic politics. Jordan's monarchy brooks no debate over the composition of its executive but permits some competition for (relatively powerless) parliamentary positions. This compromise between autocracy and democracy has permitted representation of Islamist parties such as the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of Jordan's chapter of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, which has served as a vehicle for popular discontent. The Brotherhood's parliamentary representatives were instrumental in organizing protests both against the violence in Gaza and against Jordan's complacency. There has been some rapprochement between government and Islamist forces in the past year. In August 2008, Jordan's intelligence chief, Mohammed Dhahabi, initiated talks with senior Hamas officials. …